About Writers, Isolation and Cat Companions

September 7, 2011 § 18 Comments

One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that owning at least one cat seems to be a basic requirement for authorship.

So many of those three-or-four-sentence author bios at the backs of books make a point of mentioning the author’s ownership of both spouse and cats. I thought about this when I was writing my own brief blurb recently and I instinctively added that in too. I suppose it’s a matter of ingrained expectation about author bios, because really – pick up a few books from your bookshelf and probably one of those bios will talk about their cats.

Or maybe this is mostly a fantasy author thing. My findings are unscientific to say the least. But let’s discuss it anyway.

My theory? Writers spend so much time sitting by themselves staring at a screen – or a piece of paper – that we could, over a matter of years, come to feel seriously isolated and out of touch with the real world. Loneliness can be an occupational hazard, and the more you concentrate on building your career as an author – the more hours a day you spend pounding out the words – the greater the danger of suffering from a lack of companionship.

When I moved to the Netherlands in July, my partner ever so gloriously presented me with two kittens as a welcome gift, and there’s no doubt they transform the daily writing grind. Just having Emma sleeping on the windowsill behind my computer makes me feel that I have company. But unlike dogs it’s not intrusive company. Usually. (Don’t get me wrong about dogs: I love them. I used to own a beagle and he was seriously the cutest creature in existence. But they need a lot more attention than cats do).

There are exceptions, of course. Just now my kittens are sleeping, so I get the feeling of companionship without being interrupted while I write. But they are kittens. Once in a while I’m thrown out of my writing trance by a resounding crash as something is knocked off a shelf or a windowsill, and I’m still trying – repeatedly though unsuccessfully – to discourage them from destroying my plants.

But at least they take themselves to the loo when they need to go.

Am I right about cats? How many of my writer friends either own, or wish they owned, a cat or two? Or other animal companions? And do you ever start feeling isolated when you’ve been writing long hours for months at a time?

I hear that Kage Baker is pretty good...

Can you get me the third book in the Isavalta Series while you're up there?


Social Media: I feel like I’m back in school

May 14, 2011 § 40 Comments

Once upon a time, I didn’t even have a facebook account.

I know, I know. These days that’s the equivalent of being undead. You’re not really, demonstrably in existence unless you are on the Facebook map. Even my grandmother has a facebook account.

Anyway, by this time I also have a blog (you’d never have guessed that part, right?) and a twitter account, which  makes me feel pretty cool and social-media-savvy. These things do make it a lot easier to keep in touch with friends, family and acquaintances, and it’s a way to meet some interesting new people, too. I’d pretty much love it if the whole thing didn’t increasingly remind me of the school playground.

Since I’m given to rambling at length about things that annoy me, I shall explain why. Let’s start with where it all began….


Remember a year or so ago when everybody (actually just the girls) updated their status with random colours? Or after that when everyone changed their profile picture to a childhood cartoon? Or recently when everybody reposted the same heartfelt, meaningful piece of text about Japan?

Well… all the other kids were doing it.

Or how about this one, that I saw today:


I laughed. I had to, because it was more fun than vomiting or stuffing my fist through my computer monitor. Here we have the school playground mentality in full swing.

If you don’t post the colour of your bra, you’re not really in support of cancer research, are you? If you don’t repost some trite phrase about Japan, you just don’t care that thousands of people are dying. And if you don’t repost this wall of text RIGHT NOW, I’ll know you don’t really cherish friends and family. I’ll know that you aren’t really my friend.

I’m just going to hope, really hard, that there aren’t people whose idea of a true friend is someone who posts text on their facebook wall on demand. I’m just going to have to hope that, because otherwise… I’m back to vomiting or breaking shit.

Let’s move on.


Ah, Twitter. You connect people. You enable conversations (if stilted ones) across worlds, races, religions, and fashion choices. It’s inspiring.

Here’s the precious, heart-warming communication I received this week.

@charlottenglish and (insert 5 more names here) unfollowed me today. Via #somestupidtwitter”helper”app


Now, I’m well aware that people try to game twitter by following hundreds of people, waiting until they follow back and then unfollowing them and following a load of other people. It’s touted as the quick way to build an enormous following. Therefore, there are some cute applications floating around that will helpfully tweet (on your behalf) every time you’re unfollowed. We’re calling those people out! They deserve to be publically exposed! I bet at school they were the types who would ‘accidentally’ clout the opposition around the head with the hockey stick in order to get ahead. Oops, my bad. Hope the damage isn’t permanent.

Course, you’re more likely to end up aiming those charming tweets at people who had legit reasons for unfollowing you. Therefore, what you’ve actually said is more as follows:

Hey world! I bored the shit out of 6 people on twitter today! Woo!


I’m such a foul-mouthed little bastard, I can’t write a single tweet without using the word ‘fuck’! These 6 people think I’m a total prick!


Hi guys! I’ve been posting links to my book/website/blog 85 times per day, every day, for the last week. These 6 people felt like they’d either have to unfollow me or they’d take out their own eyes with a spoon! Yay!

Etc. But, you know, nice try on calling me out.


Blogging, on the whole, manages to be less prone to playground behaviour than facebook or twitter. It’s certainly less prone to the obnoxious variety. But it’s social media, so it’s not immune. I’m talking about

Blog Awards!!!

Yeees, blog awards. Not all of them, of course; mostly the ones that read as follows:

“Hey, you’re such an AMAZING blogger I’m giving you this award! It’s all because I, personally, so much LOVED your personal blog that I just had to express my appreciation with this award!

…. Now go pass it on to fifteen more people!! Spread the highly individual, totally personalised love!!


What this reeks of more than anything is the CHAIN LETTER. Let me explain why I detest chain letters beyond all reason.

Once upon a time, when I was quite a little girl, I served time in a certain English boarding school. Not all that much of it – about a year – and I was a scholarship student, which meant immediate and lasting social death. But, unfortunately, I wasn’t completely ignored. I still received the chain letters.

This particular school kindly gave each student their own, school-based email address. They all had the same formula, so you could easily figure out the email addresses of all the other girls. That meant chain letters went through the school like a bout of plague.

Hi! Here’s a really cute picture of a kitten! Hope you enjoy it. If you don’t pass this on to 12 people within the next half hour, your entire family will die! Go! You have thirty minutes! Have a nice day 🙂

You see these things all over YouTube videos these days.

If one managed to be impervious to the threats of instant, mass death, the girls who’d sent it were probably in the same room ready to make one’s life miserable over it. So inevitably, one dutifully chose 12 more victims to send the gorgeous kitten on to. About five times a day.

Watching these ‘Blog Awards’ go around, then, is like a particularly putrid trip down Ye Olde Memory Lane. Let me just say that if anybody tries to send me one of these ‘Awards’ and expects me to bite, you’ll be disappointed. K?

Anyway, that’s it for the latest 1000-word rant. I’ll end by saying, that if anybody tries to unfriend/unfollow/unsubscribe on me in light of what I’ve written, I’ll know you were never really my friends. I’ll know that you’re probably horrible people. I bet you didn’t post your bra colour either, did you? I’LL BE WATCHING TO SEE WHO MY TRUE FRIENDS ARE.

Miss English’s Luscious Lexicon for Book Endorsements

April 28, 2011 § 19 Comments

Are you a budding book reviewer? Are you hoping to become a professional reviewer someday, or are you perhaps preparing against the day that your name appears on endorsements all over other people’s debuts? Do you just want a fulfilling, satisfying, innocent hobby to while away the hours?

Then for you, dear Reader, I have good news! I, the eponymous Miss English, have become fascinated with the Vocabulary of Review. I have braved many genres and many authors in search of particularly fine examples of Endorsement Genius; some of this I will graciously share with you as evidence of the seriousness of my research. I include annotated observations on each quote, for the reader’s enlightenment.

On a Sarah Challis novel:

Her evocation of the English countryside is elegiac. Oxford Times.

Quite a tame start, but they did manage to fit the words ‘evocation’ and ‘elegiac’ into one simple, short sentence which is pretty impressive. Obviously this is a high-brow book.

A haunting story of heartbreak and friendship. Peterborough Evening Telegraph.

It seems they like heartbreaking stories in Peterborough. Note the occurrence of the word ‘haunting’: we will be seeing this again.

On ‘Scholarium’ by Claudia Gross:

Murder and philosophical controversy are intertwined in a dense web which keeps the reader entranced. Nordbayerischer Kurier (??)

Dense entrancing webs. This book is not recommended for the arachnophobic.

On ‘The Masquerade’ by Nicholas Griffin:

An impressively imaginative approach to history. The Times

Imaginative. This is intended to denote the fact that it is fiction.

Tracy Chevalier is apparently a fan of Jude Morgan. I have not been better entertained all year, says she. Presumably she is talking about the book.

Victoria Clayton has a glinting wit and intelligence, says the Mail on Sunday. That’s right: glinting.

Kate Mosse’s latest is haunting and heartbreaking, says the Daily Express. Haunting and heartbreak are frequently found together.

Gail Carriger has a delicious rapier wit which is also intoxicating. Some authors are dangerous.

Every single book in the world is unputdownable. This is only a word in the world of book reviews.

After all this research, I am proud to present Miss English’s Luscious Lexicon for Book Endorsements. Use this for all of your book reviewing needs. Don’t stop at a mere sprinkling of tantalising terms: the more of these words employed, the more glittering the review. (Or do I mean glinting?)

For science fiction and fantasy

Atmospheric, breath-taking, colossal, detailed, evocative, imaginative, ingenious, intoxicating, lush, original, phenomenal, razor-sharp, sensual, staggering, triumphant, unputdownable.

Sample review: An unputdownable tale of colossal, staggering, breath-taking proportions. The writing is atmospheric, lush and evocative executed with a glinting, razor-sharp, intoxicating wit. I stayed up until dawn to finish reading this phenomenally well-executed book.

For thrillers and crime novels 

Action-packed, fast-moving, exciting, gripping, gritty, heart-racing, menacing, palpitating, relentless, shocking, suspense, tough, unputdownable, whirlwind.

Sample review: This is a fast-moving, action-packed, totally relentless rollercoaster of a book, so shockingly thrilling that I was suffering cardiac arrest by page fifty-seven. I was resuscitated five times before I reached the end of this heart-palpitating, unputdownable whirlwind of a story. It will take me a year to recover my health, but I don’t care: this is a must-read.

For women’s fiction

Bittersweet, colourful, compelling, deft, entertaining, fun, haunting, heart-breaking, intoxicating, irresistable, magical, mesmerising, relatable, saucy, sexy, stylish, tantalising, tender, unputdownable, warm-hearted, witty.

Sample review: This haunting, heart-breaking tale is bittersweet and tenderly funny. The author’s irresistable, intoxicating wit sparkles dazzlingly through every scene. It’s easily relatable, unputdownable, funtastic and amazingacious – I gave away my six-year-old daughter today so that I could have time to read every single word this author has ever written. This must-read book will transform your life, leaving you irrevocably, permanently, unreversably changed.

For historical fiction

Authentic, breathtaking, compelling, comprehensive, deft, engaging, epic, evocative, imposing, informative, intelligent, majestic, meticulous, operatic, powerful, rich, rigorous, scalpel-like, sprawling, tour-de-force, tumultuous, unputdownable, vivid.

Sample review: Triumphant: a must-read. This confident, assured debut is a slow-building, considered narrative that’s simultaneously gripping, tumultuous, action-packed and completely unputdownable. The majestic, sprawling scope of this truly epic novel is completely mind-blowing. It is rigorously, meticulously researched and absolutely authentic, and at the same time it is an imaginative and original interpretation of it subject matter. The author builds the world with scalpel-like precision, as deft and careful as a brain surgeon operating on the girl of his dreams. I wonder if this author would accept a proposal of marriage.

For horror

Bleak, bitter, chilling, dazzling, disturbing, dreamlike, eerie, grim, gripping, haunting, horrifying, nightmare, repulsive, spectral, spooky, striking, thrilling, unforgettable, unputdownable, violent.

Sample review: This accessible, eminently readable tale of terror is so chillingly disturbing – so hauntingly horrifying – that you’ll be too scared to finish the book. It’s a bleak, grim, eerie nightmare of a tale that will have you sleeping with the light on for the next eighteen years. Expect plenty of thrilling spectral violence. An unputdownable must-read.

There it is, dear Readers, free for your delectation, admiration, entertainment, enjoyment and possible disparagement. In closing, here’s what one reviewer recently said about the Lucious Lexicon:

An unputdownable must-read! (The Weekend Lexicographer).

Portrait of a Writer #3: Ms Perky

April 20, 2011 § 6 Comments

From time to time I like to explore the portrayal of writers in fiction and film. Previously in this blog series, we’ve looked at Karen Eiffel of Stranger than Fiction and Richard Castle of the murder mystery TV series Castle. The character we are visiting today has a small role in a highschool movie …

WAIT don’t go. This is a teen movie that is not entirely putrid. I admit that there is a prom involved. (If we are to believe film culture, it seems like American highschool kids do nothing but attend proms). However it has nothing whatsoever to do with transforming the ugly duckling into the swan so that she is allowed to kiss Freddie Prinze Jnr. On the contrary, the plot is based on The Taming of the Shrew, and moreover it manages to be pretty consistently funny.

The film is 10 Things I Hate About You, and the character in question is played by the marvellous Alison Janney. Good huh? Her name is Ms. Perky and she is a Guidance Counselor (see what I did there? I spelled it the American way. Oh yes. Doing well).

Ms. Perky is not a very good Guidance Counselor (!) because she is very, very busy writing an erotic novel. Here is a clip of her first appearance.

How many writers do this? Work on the novel at the office, I mean, not… the rest. Necessarily. (Anybody want to own up to any of Ms. Perky’s more original characteristics?) I imagine most of us are a bit more surreptitious about it than Ms. Perky. It’d be fun to get away with tossing everyone out of the office so you can have more quality time with the novel.

And it would be so amusing to be able to get away with that degree of blunt talking. There are definitely times when I want to be able to say you are a fatuous moron without creating a miniature world war three.

Instead I just admire pink-clad, straight-talking, erotica-writing fake guidance counselors from a distance. If I can’t be Karen Eiffel when I grow up, maybe I’ll settle for turning into Ms. Perky.

Book Trailers. Why?

April 6, 2011 § 8 Comments

So, I’ve been quite serious lately. Very serious. I have a string of posts which are so relentlessly serious I scarcely recognise them as mine. Since it is my birthday I decided to treat myself to a post full of complete absurdity.

The chosen topic: book trailers. Wouldn’t it be amusing to poke fun at the increasing invasion of the book world by crass marketing techniques? Just imagine if people started being silly enough to create film-style trailers to go with book releases! Imagine! I thought it would be tremendous fun.

Only… it’s already happened. Not even recently, either; I gather book trailers have been lurking around for a while.

Oh, god. Say it isn’t so.

I’m a bit puzzled by this. I am a voracious reader, and I have been buying books online for years. And yet, I have never come across such a putrid abomination as a book trailer. Either they’ve been quite well-hidden up until now, or I’ve been pretty good at filtering out the things that will make me want to take out my own eyes with a spoon.

Why am I so indignant about this? Primarily because I can’t see a reason why the world needs book trailers. The reason I’ve been given is: modern readers have an attention span of about five seconds, and nobody reads anymore because we all watch TV instead. This is why a mere synopsis is not enough: there must be a super-professional, glossy trailer to persuade people to waste their time reading a book instead of watching a film.

How incredibly patronising.

Now that the book world is hurtling in the direction of the digital, it appears we are to be seeing more of these strange beasts floating around. Experts are already telling new authors that this (along with a million other things) is essential and must be done before the book is released.

Clearly, then, I am going to need a book trailer when I publish  my first novel. How can I expect anyone to read it, otherwise? Obviously my career depends upon it.


First of all, I am going to need music. Let’s take a leaf out of the film industry’s big book of super-duper film tricks and pick something exciting. Loud! Exhilarating, even! Packed with action!

Great start. Next I’m going to need some people to play my characters. These chaps and chapettes will do nicely:






Right, I’ve only got thirty seconds of screen time for this trailer, so I’d better make sure to include all the juiciest parts. You know, to make sure my readers are hooked.

That means there must be:

An action sequence! I’d love to have some guns and fine latex suits, but this is fantasy fiction so I will have to settle for rapiers, velvet coats and lace cuffs. That’ll take up about twenty of my thirty seconds.

Nudity! After all, no film book is worth watching reading without sex, right? I can probably manage to strip all my major characters at least half naked in the remaining ten seconds of the trailer.

I might even have time for one or two choice (but brief) quotes from the actual text. You know, the cute one-liners that will give the impression that it’s breezily witty and intelligent as well as graphically violent and pornographic.

There, job done. That ought to do it. My career is made.

It’s just a shame that none of this has anything at all to do with the novel I’m writing. But what does that matter, right?

Portrait of a Writer #2: Richard Castle

March 23, 2011 § 3 Comments

So: imagine you’re a writer. That is the easy part. Next, imagine you are researching a new novel. It’s going to be, say, a murder mystery set in New York. Your protagonist is a homicide detective and your novel is going to be full of police procedural details. Hard to research, right?

Next, imagine you are a best-selling author making millions of dollars from your books. (I know; it’s getting wild now).

And finally, imagine you are charming, witty, clever and look the spitting image of Nathan Fillion. You know everyone in New York, and everyone knows you.

You are… this guy.

Now, if only you had all those advantages, it’d be pretty easy to research a novel, right? You could, for example, use your connections with the Mayor to get permission to shadow a real homicide detective on the job. Wouldn’t it be even cooler if the detective happened to be glamorous, gorgeous, witty and the spitting image of Stana Katic?

Okay, so all of this is a tiny bit unrealistic. Hey,  it’s TV. We don’t need to ask how a homicide detective can afford a seemingly endless wardrobe of expensive designer clothes, right? The really great thing about Castle is that it’s a believable picture of the qualities a committed writer could bring to detective work. Kate Beckett’s all about the facts; logic; working her way through the case piece by piece. And that’s important. Castle’s approach is to think about what kind of a story would make sense. If the explanation Beckett’s arrived at is too simple to be true, he’ll come up with an alternative. Some of his theories are wildly wacky and very funny. Some of them are insightful and, once in a while, spot on. Not only does he gain plenty of material for his novels, he’s also able to contribute very effectively to the cases in hand.

I love Castle, because it is consistently funny, wry, and spot on with character and relationships. It’s a murder mystery series where the crimes are largely incidental to the ongoing story of the lives of Castle & Beckett, their regular assistants Ryan and Esposito, and Castle’s mother and daughter. It’s magnificently good storytelling throughout. What really intrigues me, though, is the portrait of the qualities that make Castle both a great writer and a great detective.

To close, here’s Castle advertising his latest book!


I have a couple of recurring themes on this blog, one of which is to share particularly good portraits of writers in film, TV and fiction.

This is the second post in this series. The first covered Karen Eiffel, a character from the film Stranger than Fiction. Find the original post here.

On the Scented Sea of Desire

March 19, 2011 § 15 Comments

Today we’re going sailing, on the Scented Sea… of Desire.

I know what it sounds like. It sounds just like… well, being a proper young lady I won’t say.

It’s actually a tea.

To quote the supplier:

“Exotic candied fruits, mango, papaya, pineapple and scented flowers have the desired effect!”

(I wonder what the desired effect could be?)

It comes from this beautiful shop on Steep Hill, Lincoln, Merry Old England:

Imperial Teas of Lincoln

And in this shop is a HOST of glorious teas, and they are not glorious merely for their delicious fragrances and their delectable flavours. They are glorious for their NAMES.

When else do you get to go shopping for Friar’s Potion, White Rabbit, Super Jasmine Dragon Phoenix Pearls or Monkey on Top of the Mountain?

How about Russian Caravan and Keemun Black Tiger?

Gunpowder Special Temple of Heaven?

Yellow Mountain Golden Spears and April Snow?

Secret Garden, White Crystal, Fuchow Snow Buds, Golden Needles, Goddess of Mercy, Love Dedication, Roselle and Lavender… it goes on.

I don’t know about you, but I am completely sold on every single one of those and I don’t even know what most of them look, taste or smell like. I’m just dreaming about the day when I get to stock my kitchen with jar after polished jar labelled up with ‘Flowers in the Sun’, ‘Captain Tea’s Well-Being’, ‘Water Sprite’ and ‘Eight Immortals’.

I’ll put them right next to the jars labelled ‘Eye of Newt’, ‘Frogs’ Legs’ and ‘Wing of Bat’.

Would I feel that way about them if they didn’t have such glorious, outrageous names? Maybe not. Call it ‘green tea’ and it becomes a bit drab. Even ‘jasmine green tea’, which I love, lacks a certain something in comparison with ‘Jasmine Snow Monkey’.

Names, then, are important! Names inspire, and catch at the imagination. Wouldn’t you have more belief in the awesome power of ‘Theodorus the Hero’ than ‘Bob the Impressive Guy?’ I’m telling you, the enduring supremacy of Lancelot is about more than a white horse, shining armour, a chivalrous manner and achingly good looks. It’s because he has a cooler name than Arthur.

Those of us who write fantasy are lucky. We get to make up names to suit the characteristics of the characters. Fantasy names can be musical, thundering, soothing, resounding, fearsome… it’s so much fun to make them up, and so hard to get them just right for the character, that I spend more time on this than I should.

Even if you’re not writing fantasy, there’s scope to be more imaginative with names. Not everyone has to be called Joe, or Deb, or Bob. Try Gwendolyn, Zachary or Sebastian. Even the abbreviations sound cool. (Just don’t mix up the two approaches and have a book set in the modern world where everyone is called ‘Thorn’ or ‘Rowan’ or ‘Misty’. That’s really bizarre to read).

By the way, the website for the above-named tea supplier can be found here. It’s an amazing shop, not the least so for actually being family-run and casually situated in an ancient and decidedly picturesque 12th century building. As far as I know they will post tea (and coffee!) just about anywhere.

Anyway, I’ve made a resolution. Next time I wake up feeling like I cannot be bothered with Life, the World or Anything, I will begin my day with a cup of Scented Sea of Desire. Who knows what could happen?

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